Oh, the horror of being a big bride in a skinny-bride world. Bridal salon owner Lisa Litt and her boyfriend, Burt Warner, are standing in Litt's newly opened store, Della Curva, on the second floor of a Tarzana mini-mall, contemplating wedding-dress injustice. "This is how they're forced to try on dresses," Warner says. He holds a gown against his chest, drapes the hanger around his neck and holds his arms out, palms up like Jesus on the cross. "This is what they had to do."
Litt also owns Lili Bridal, which is on the first floor and is mostly for regular-sized brides. Della Curva, however, is different. It is, as Litt and Warner say, "a game changer." It is Southern California's first plus-size bridal salon — for big girls only.
Traditional bridal apparel runs small, with size charts stuck in the 1950s, even as retailers like the Gap and J. Crew have completely altered what it means to be a size 2 in 2013. Even worse, bridal stores typically carry wedding gowns only in sizes 8, 10 and 12. You try on a sample and then special-order a dress in your size — assuming the designer even makes your chosen style in plus sizes. Most don't. A bigger girl usually can't even get the sample dresses on her body.
"We've heard some horror stories," Litt says. Some big brides have been forced to choose from dresses shoved in the corner of a store, or in the basement. Or they've resorted to Chinese knockoffs. Ordered from a website, the dress arrives with pieces unsewn. Or with pins left in. Or shrink-wrapped. Or with a fishy formaldehyde smell that can't be removed. Or made of a terrible fabric bearing no resemblance to the online photo — a classic bait and switch.
And snobby sales associates — they are a separate subcategory of awful. At one store, they tried to sell a girl a dress that was barely big enough to cover her thigh. Another bride was flat-out ignored. "The sales associates were fighting not to help her," Litt says.
She and Warner decided that the big bride deserves better. "Personally, I don't want a whole bunch of skinny girls shopping up here," Warner says. "The only slimmer girls I want up here are the ones who come with the plus-size bride. A sister, a best friend, a cousin, a mother. Someone who's been asked to come."
He doesn't want random skinny bridesmaids from other wedding parties hanging around making the curvy girl feel bad. "They don't want to be standing next to a size 2, 5-foot-7, 110-pound girl with a boob job, where every single thing she puts on looks fantastic," he says. "They have to be able to open up. We want them to relax, sip some sparkling water and have a good time."
"And buy a dress," Litt says. "Ha ha, just kidding."
But what sort of dress? At first, Litt raced out to buy a bunch of A-line dresses. "An A-line is sort of like a teepee," Warner explains.
"No," Litt says. "Not like a teepee." She leans forward conspiratorially. "I thought they wanted A-lines." They did not. They wanted slinky mermaid dresses.
"Did you ever see The Addams Family?" Warner asks. "Morticia used to wear a mermaid all the time."
The plus-size girls want body-hugging sheaths and fit-and-flare trumpet dresses. They want sexy and lightweight. They want to show off their assets, not hide them. "Think about it," Warner says. "The guy obviously loves her curves. So why cover them up on the big day?"
You'd think at least they'd want sleeves for coverage. They don't. Litt shrugs. "So far I haven't sold a sleeve."
She can custom-make sleeves, though. She has a seamstress on-site.
After the A-line fiasco, Litt bought other kinds of dresses: Old Hollywood styles with ruching down the side — in stretch satin, for comfort. Taffeta ball gowns with velvet belts. She bought pleats and lace and plunging sweetheart necklines. She bought them with sweeping trains and crystal-encrusted bodices in silk organza and champagne blush tulle. She filled out a whole chiffon section, for beach weddings.
"This is like Emma," Litt says, her delicate fingers alighting now on a wispy, "gardeny," empire-waist number. "You know, Jane Austen."
Litt, to whom Warner refers as "the little battery" that powers Lili Bridals, is a third-generation bridal salon owner. The eponymous Lili was her grandmother. As a kid, Litt cleaned mirrors in the shop. It is a testament to the Litts' passion and business acumen that, back then, there were 14 bridal salons on Ventura Boulevard. Now there are just three — Lili Bridals, Della Curva and one other.
Litt still remembers 15 years ago, when bridal only went up to size 20. One of their oldest employees, an 82-year-old seamstress, reminded her of how they used to have to order extra fabric from the designer and widen a dress by breaking open its side seams and adding a gusset.
Thankfully, more designers are doing plus-size now, Litt says, even if many stores won't stock them.
Thus far, the bigger dresses have been a win-win. As she was walking out, one bride told Warner and Litt that they'd just put the happy back in her wedding. Happiness, in this case, cost $1,100. "It's a nice price," Litt says. The bride concurs. Her grateful Yelp review made Warner cry.
Warner loves to watch the girls' eyes grow big as saucers as they take in the glittering black chandelier, the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the boulevard, the four plush settees arranged prettily around an ottoman in the center of the room, the frosted-glass dressing rooms and the glorious dresses. He sees "the wheels turning." He sees the panic melt away. Then the dawning realization: "Wait, all these dresses can ... fit?"
Then, an even better realization: Some of the gowns are too big. "We have to clip them in the back," Warner says, proudly.
One girl, Litt recalls, stood in front of the mirror for 45 minutes and would not take the dress off.
The customers come from Bakersfield, Covina, Montebello, New Mexico — nervous brides, anxious brides, brides with a month to go before the wedding. Della Curva carries multiple sizes for many styles. Here, a desperate bride can walk out the door with a dress.
"For the skinny bride, dress shopping is an event," Warner explains. "For the bigger girls, shopping is not a pleasant experience. They wait until the last minute."
"Don't say bigger," Litt says.
"Ehh. We're gonna have to come up with something. It's sad that they dread this experience," Litt adds, her voice getting trembly. "It makes me very sad." Warner places a consoling hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she sniffs. "I don't know why I'm so emotional."
Litt may be emotional, but she's also a realist. Some naive plus-size girls who have only just begun to shop "think it's all unicorns and rainbows" out there, she says. A brief but informative story, then, of two brides: One bride figured maybe she ought to look around. Della Curva was the first place she'd been to, and she'd found a dress here that she loved, but it seemed imprudent to drop a grand at the very first store.
"Oh honey," said the second bride, who was waiting for the next appointment. "You don't know what it's like out there. It's hell."
In the end, the bigger girls, as Litt and Warner say, are so appreciative. Their first plus-size customer, in fact, has since become a good friend. The size-30 dress that girl bought, was it what she imagined for herself? Litt closes her eyes and says, "It was everything."
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